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First Reading: Accountability funding for all

Published (2/13/2009)
By Kris Berggren
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Superintendent Michael Lovett, right, and Board Member Lori Swenson from the White Bear Lake Public Schools examine runs of potential funding levels for school districts as part of a proposed new education funding framework. They attended the Feb. 10 meeting of House K-12 Education Finance Division, where the “New Minnesota Miracle” was presented. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)Does more money deliver a better education? Many Minnesota schools are already doing more — or at least treading water — with less.

Consider the Minnewaska school district in rural Pope County. It has posted some admirable academic results, including 2007 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment scores “significantly higher” than the state average. Also, it has a 99 percent graduation rate, despite a 43 percent free and reduced-cost lunch eligibility — a marker of poverty often linked with barriers to academic proficiency.

But the district has struggled to stay afloat, says Superintendent Greg Ohl, who calls himself a “fiscal conservative.”

The district pulled out of statutory operating debt in 2007 by cutting staff, programs and extracurricular activities. Ohl pulled triple duty last year to save money, serving as superintendent, district business manager and a site principal. After four attempts, a levy referendum was passed last year to buy new textbooks, fund all-day kindergarten and reduce class sizes.

A 32-year educator and district leader, Ohl says the “rollercoaster” of funding surges and deep cuts that have worsened since the 1980s is simply failing to meet actual needs, much less prepare his students to compete in a global economy.

He is among those endorsing the “New Minnesota Miracle,” a bill before the House to reform education funding — even if it takes a tax increase to enact.

“Because we do need to invest in education; it’s the best way to stimulate our economy,” said Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville), the bill’s sponsor. “Education is the key to productivity, according to Tom Stinson, our state economist.”

Looking for a miracle

The “New Minnesota Miracle,” or HF2, would return the bulk of education funding responsibility to the state as constitutionally required, and relieve taxpayers of funding local operating levies. It would also minimize competition among districts for a fixed amount of funding and build the education budget from the ground up based on actual needs.

If enacted, parents, students, teachers and administrators could see significant funding changes over time.

School districts forced to shift around their line items to cover things like special education and transportation would see relief in dedicated funding components.

Reine Shiffman, a board member of the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan school district, told the House K-12 Education Finance Division on Feb. 10 that her district had to shift $4.5 million last year from its general education revenue to compensate for special education, transportation and English language learner programs.

As numbers of non-English speaking students and those in poverty rise — as is projected in every corner of the state — districts could nip the achievement gap in the bud as early childhood education and all-day kindergarten would be funded through the bill.

Supporters of the bill say it is more transparent to the public.

Currently the process is so complicated that as Ohl put it, “When you talk about a proration of a proration it’s hard not to see farmers’ eyes glaze over at a truth in taxation hearing.”

Almost every legislator, school superintendent, school board member or principal in urban, rural and suburban districts alike finds something to like in the proposal, and many are willing to hold their noses and put up with what they don’t like.

But the plan would cost $2.5 billion to fully implement, although it’s designed to be scalable, or phased in over time with any amount of new revenue.

“The current formula is totally busted. This [bill] absolutely is a step in the right direction. It’s absolutely an improvement,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington). He likes the location equity index feature, and the change in how compensatory funding for children in poverty is dealt out, aspects that would benefit his largely suburban district.

“But the big problem is the cost. And that’s the part we really can’t get over. You can’t count on five billion Obama bucks coming into our state or whatever it is paying for it,” he said.

Advocates say the new formula would be worth the investment, even in these hard times. They know it could require a general tax increase — but most Minnesotans are already paying more taxes to fund education through school operating property tax levies, according to Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools, who said 91 percent of school districts have passed levy referenda.

But Garofalo argues that even if a tax increase raised $3 billion, the Legislature would still be forced to make program cuts. “I wish I could suspend the laws of mathematics and make this possible, but this is a session where we have to be coming up with creative ideas to spend less, not more,” he said.

“Money isn’t everything,” Greiling said. “There are always things districts can do to change their culture and their philosophy and how they’re doing things with their existing money. But in the end you still have to pay for things you care about and show your values that way.”

Greiling credits a statewide coalition of education organizations and parent groups, PS Minnesota, with creating the bill’s blueprint — and that coalition “is the gift that PS Minnesota gave us.”

“They all support — every type of school district supports — this bill. They all have to plug their nose and not like parts of it. My district hates the levy referendum offset. If you have a large levy referendum you’re going to lose $500 of it. But it will be paid for by the state so you get property tax relief. … Some other districts would like to get rid of the location equity index. So there’s just plenty of things in here that everybody doesn’t like, but everybody agreed the total is worth it, and that when they benefit, everybody benefits. There are no losers in this bill.”

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